Dictionaries in the classroom

Kindly follow my train of thought… If bookshops are a ‘dying breed’, so are books and thus so are dictionaries. In the 21st century where dictionary skills are still being taught in schools, in the age of the internet where everything is immediately accessible at the touch of a button, are we teaching younger generations skills that will be no use for them in the future?

I know what my thoughts on this are, thoughts I plan on sharing with you shortly but before that, I would like to share how others responded to the question, I posed on twitter @savedyouaspot.

Should children still be taught dictionary skills in the age of the internet? 

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As you can see the results speak for themselves. That’s right, a staggering 93% voted yes; an almost unanimous outcome. Not only do people believe dictionary skills should be taught in schools but they feel quite strongly about it, too. To quote a comment, made on the above questionnaire, by ‘the most influential person in Education, in Britain’, @TeacherToolkit (11/09/2016)

“It’s essential every student carries a dictionary and that every teacher refers to one (& demo. how to use) in *most lessons.” TeacherToolkit

I hear that loud and clear but one can’t help to raise the question, with extended internet use on tablets, phones etc. is it not a skill that may be outdated?

The answer is by no means simple. No one can completely dismiss the use of acquiring dictionary skills, when it is actually seen as a skill to be acquired; to be put in use in real, every day contexts, within a person’s lifetime.

Those of us who have been brought up to respect the use of the dictionary and have seen its undeniable value in action, may feel the urge to stick up for those poor, underestimated dictionaries in today’s world. We have seen it in action as a powerful tool to help enrich ones vocabulary, to gain in depth understanding of words encountered, and many have a hard time letting go. Yet, I ponder, is it truly time to let go?

Mark Vernon, in his article We need to have Words, paints a colourful picture of what it feels like to use a dictionary, found on the blog The Pioneer Woman.

“You glance through its pages, and all sorts of possibilities capture your eye as your brain draws associations from the flicker. There’s not just the pleasure of the search. One word sparks remembrance of another, or leads to the discovery of one that is new – for use now or in the future. As a result, you may well find a better way of articulating your thoughts, so that you don’t just mean what you say but say what you mean – which, as the March Hare pointed out to Alice, is ‘Not the same thing a bit!’. “

On the one hand, looking through a dictionary to find a particular word, requires utmost concentration, it uses working memory to recall the alphabet, to make sure you have not gone past the word you are searching for. As you scan the page, your eyes are exposed to many words, some of which your eye may fall upon out of curiosity. You then start reading those definitions and enrich your vocabulary even more, before you set off again on your original quest.

dictionariesThe dictionary itself is organised in alphabetical order, knowing that order and being able to use it is a skill that is used in many other areas such as mathematics for example. When ordering numbers you focus on a single digit at a time in order to compare it. It is the same skill you practice when using a dictionary, as you will focus on each letter at a a time, in order to locate the position of the word to find the definition. Organisational skills such as finding a book in a library, using a catalogue, or organising your own things stem from the acquisition of strong dictionary skills. Even reciting the alphabet as one flicks through the pages, knowing which part of the dictionary to look and placing the words in that order is an organisational technique that will undoubtably have use in mastering organisational skills.

On the other hand, online dictionaries, are so much faster, easier, and get straight to the end result in no time. Here I am writing this article, using none other that the online dictionary, and feeling like a traitor. There is no need to spend excess time looking for words and getting sidetracked from ones you find. We live in the fast lane and time is money. Children should be taught to use online dictionaries, scrap the dictionaries.

Online dictionaries are the way forward, but are they? I will leave you with that question and one answer. 

“Nothing lasts forever.” TeacherToolkit

I would love to hear more thoughts on this. Please leave a comment below if you have some thoughts to share.

Till next time…

Peppi Orfanogianni

Special thanks to my colleague, Ms. Maniatis, for the inspiration. 

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